Cavaliers 107, Pacers 104
CLEVELAND (AP)—LeBron James slipped on an orange No. 23 Cavaliers’ throwback jersey—his own.
The rookie’s retro look wasn’t the only fashion statement in Gund Arena on Sunday. At long last, even the Cavaliers are back in style.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas made two free throws with 36 seconds left and forced a big turnover seconds later for the Cavs, who improved to 10-3 since the All-Star break.
Many of those wins had come against some of the league’s weaker teams, but by beating the NBA-leading Pacers, Cleveland strengthened its hold on a playoff spot and legitimized an improbable turnaround season.
“We feel like we’re one of the best teams in the East,” James said, “and we’re proving ourselves.”
Sure enough. The Cavs (30-36), who won just 17 games last season, have won six in a row for the first time since Dec. 5-16, 2000. And suddenly, talk of making the playoffs has given way to speculation about who they’ll play.
“I think this win shows that we’re a team to be reckoned with,” point guard Jeff McInnis said. “We know we can play with anybody that puts an NBA uniform on. But we’re not going to get cocky or overconfident, though. We’ll just keep going out and doing our thing.”
Jermaine O’Neal had 32 points for the Pacers, who had their seven-game winning streak stopped. Indiana lost in Gund Arena for the first time since 1998 after winning 12 in a row.
Both teams played with a playoff-like intensity and performed as if there was something bigger on the line.
And only the 20,562 fans were lucky enough to see it as the matchup wasn’t shown on TV in either Indianapolis or Cleveland because of a network blackout.
“That’s too bad,” James said.
Fittingly, the see-saw game came down to Indiana’s final possession.
After Ilgauskas’ two free throws made it 107-104, the 7-foot-3 center— benched earlier this season for his weak defense—stopped O’Neal on the baseline and forced him to dribble the ball off his knee and out of bounds.
McInnis made the second of two free throws with 18 seconds left, setting up a wild sequence. Indiana’s Jamaal Tinsley missed a 3-pointer, Al Harrington came up with the rebound after a scramble in the lane and James accidentally bowled over referee Luis Grillo.
Indiana then set up for a final play with 4 seconds left, but Artest never got a good look with James in his face and misfired on his 3-pointer as time expired.
“I just fell short,” Artest said. “I’m glad I got that shot out of the way now so when the playoffs come and I’m in that situation, I’m sure it will go down.”
The Cavs didn’t score a field goal in the final 3:24 and Indiana had just one over the last 4:15 as both teams buckled down defensively.
Nailon, who signed his second 10-day contract on Saturday, is 6-0 since joining the Cavs.
“I knew I could play in this league,” he said. “It was just finding the right team and the right coach.”
Artest scored 21 and Harrington added 18 for the Pacers, who lost despite shooting 56 percent from the field.
James scored 20 points in the first half—13 in the opening period—with an array of drives and jumpers. He spotted up and dropped in two long jumpers over Artest, who appeared willing to let the Cavs’ rookie shoot rather than drive.
Artest, who picked up two early fouls, was slightly bothered by Indiana coach Rick Carlisle’s decision to have Reggie Miller guard James to start the game.
“Why wait until late to put me on him?” Artest said. “That’s my job.”
James was 9-for-12 in the opening half and Nailon was 6-for-7 as the Cavs took a 62-58 lead at the break. It was the most points Indiana has given up ina half this season.
After losing at least 50 game in each of the past four years, the Cavs matched their win total from 2000-01 when they went 30-52. … Carlisle said the Cavs could be dangerous if they make the postseason. “They’re built for the playoffs,” he said, “and they’re getting better as they go along.” … The Pacers’ next win will give them their eighth 50-win season. … The sellout was the Cavs’ 10th this season and the third straight—the first time they’ve done that since 1995-96. … A statistical oddity: both teams were 36-of-62 (58percent) from the field after three quarters.